Call Jane review – abortion drama is sensitive if not revelatory

Screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s film on the pre-Roe underground abortion network features strong performances but never rises to a rousing battle cry

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” chants a group of student protesters – “yippies”, in the eyes of suspicious, coiffed lawyers – in the opening scene of Call Jane, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy’s meticulous, if not revelatory, film on an underground network of abortion providers in Chicago. It’s August 1968, five years before Roe v Wade, and the energy is combustible enough to ruffle even Joy (Elizabeth Banks, a fascinating mix of softness and steel), a suburban housewife pregnant with her second child.

Joy, to use the parlance of a later decade, “has it all” – an attractive, successful husband in lawyer Will (Chris Messina), a picket-fence house, 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) – but she is still drawn to the buzz of revolution. In an arresting first scene, the camera follows behind Joy, polished and bejeweled, past the yippie clash with police to her husband’s car, where she muses over their mantra out loud.

Call Jane, from a screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, plants this seed of an awakening for Joy and watches it bloom, in a sensitive, sometimes too on-the-nose manner. Shortly after the yippie run-in, Joy is informed that her pregnancy threatens her life. The hospital rejects her appeal for a “therapeutic termination”; in an example of Call Jane hammering home the point, the all-male hospital board discuss her life in front of Joy as if she’s invisible, immaterial, silent. Will, a status quo guy, feels resigned to their decision. Joy, incensed and unleashed, calls “Jane”, a number for pregnant women who are “anxious”, plastered on flyers around town.

Thus Joy is initiated into the Jane Collective, and Call Jane into a restrained, though sharper than it could’ve been, ode to heroism of the past acts of radical generosity and courage which could hold a dark echo for the future, as Roe v Wade rests on the supreme court’s chopping block this year. The real Jane Collective women are explored in another Sundance film this year, the HBO documentary The Janes; one of its participants, Judith Arcana, served as a historical consultant on Call Jane. In Schore and Sethi’s version, the fictional Joy’s transition from patient to reluctant participant to full-blown activist is guided by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), an iron-willed, true-blue grassroots activist who governs the Janes with a chastened practicality, and Dean (Cory Michael Smith), the preening, somewhat skeevy doctor who provides critical abortion services for $600 a pop.

Call Jane’s tracking of these revolutionaries, due their spotlight, is straightforward and clear-eyed, similar in measured tone (and 60s soundtrack) to an episode of prestige period drama TV, such as FX on Hulu’s Mrs America, in which Banks evocatively plays another conservative midwesterner turned feminist activist. That’s not a criticism, per se; it’s refined, sensitive, humanized historicism, with clear arc and stakes, a stylized window into a different time.

Cory Michael Smith and Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane.
Cory Michael Smith and Elizabeth Banks in Call Jane. Photograph: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s worth questioning the decision to use a white, conventionally beautiful suburban housewife whose abortion is a stark matter of life and death as an entreé into this world. The film acknowledges this shortcoming with several pointed lines about the dearth of black clients who can’t afford the service, and through the concerns of Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), who needles Virginia to hold to her principles of equity by finding a way to provide free abortions and prioritize black women. (Virginia’s solution, which involves a striptease negotiation with the fascinating Dean, is a standout scene.) But Banks’s Joy is so layered – unbowed in her decisions, her personhood, yet still scared, tentative – to defuse most doubt in this choice.

Each of the supporting characters, too, has intriguing shades of grey in small roles. Joy’s widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mara, doing a lot with a little), numbed by pills, booze and a copy of Diary of a Mad Housewife, strikes up a charged bond with Will as Joy spends less and less time at home, arousing everyone’s suspicions. Messina imbues Will with a dampened charm that peeks through his frustrating complacency with the norms of his day. Charlotte can seem 18 or 13 depending on the scene, but her peculiar allegiance to the moral stew in which she was raised make sense as a sheltered teenager.

Call Jane particularly shines in Nagy’s depiction of the abortion procedure itself – the camera hovers over the metal instruments, on either Dean or Joy’s narration of the procedure, and each woman’s face in anxious repose. The measured observance and repetition of these scenes manages to capture both the clinical precision of a medical procedure and a deeply personal, often frightening experience unique to each woman.

That in itself is a feat, one that feels of a piece with recent realist, unsentimental depictions of abortion in the besieged present such as Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always and Unpregnant. By film’s end, the Janes’ hope is galvanizing, bittersweet. Call Jane never quite rises to the level of a rousing battle cry, but does offer a studious examination of a past that could, terrifyingly, become our future.

  • Call Jane screened at the Sundance film festival and is released in the UK on 4 November.


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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